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An Apostle

“Now, I considered it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker, and comrade in arms — also your apostle and a minister to my needs — for he was longing and anxious to be with you because you heard that he was seriously ill.”

(Philippians 2:25-26)

We are introduced to Epaphroditus; we don’t know much about him apart from what we read here, yet from that we can infer that Epaphroditus was the representative of the Philippian church who brought the love gift and stayed on for a season to help care for Paul. We also see that he had become ill — seriously ill — during that time, and Paul speaks further on that in the verses which follow.

What strikes me is the term that Paul uses to describe Epaphroditus…he is called an “apostle.” Some of our translations use the term “messenger” here, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Were Epaphroditus simply a messenger, we might expect Paul to use the term a¡ggeloß (angelos) or were he more of a courier, we might expect the term specoula/twr (spechoulator). Yet, in ancient times, an apostle was more than just one who brings a message on behalf of others; an apostle also carried with him the authority of the one who sent him — much like the modern notion of a political envoy.

The question is, are we then to understand Epaphroditus as an apostle in the same way that Paul was an apostle. The answer to that question is, ‘no.’ The reason for this answer is because we must also ask of whom a person is an apostolic representative. Paul refers to himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1, etc…). In turn, Paul refers to Epaphroditus as “your apostle.” Thus, Epaphroditus is serving as an apostle, an authoritative representative, of the church in Philippi. In addition, Epaphroditus is also a believer, a servant of Christ, which makes him Paul’s brother in Christ and a comrade in arms — spiritual soldiers against the powers and principalities of this world.

What is worth noting is that while some people call themselves “Apostles” in our modern times, that office has ceased with the establishment of the church and the close of the Canon. None of these so-called apostles speak with the authority of Jesus Christ and if they claim to, we must be wary. Indeed, they might claim to be apostles of their church if that authority is so given to them, but the Biblical term for those of us who lead churches is that of Shepherd — Pastor. And a Pastor is a servant first…terms like Apostle (at least when used today) only tend to reflect a person’s ego. Better to be called a fellow-worker.

Notice too, how important these people are to Paul. When one is incarcerated, to have contact with others is a gift of God’s grace. I would encourage you that if you know someone who is in prison — write them a letter today or make a plan to go visit them. Be that Epaphroditus to them; it will mean the world to them as they serve their time behind bars…and what a wonderful opportunity to witness the grace of Christ.

The Pastor’s Heart

“But even if I am made a drink offering over the sacrifice and worship of your faith, I rejoice — also, I rejoice with all of you!”

(Philippians 2:17)

Here, in Paul, we find the heart of a true pastor. His heart is laid forth that even if his very life is poured out from his veins as a drink offering as a means by which the faith of the people is built up, Paul would gladly do so. Paul will use this language again in 2 Timothy 4:6 as he closes in on that time when the Romans will put him to death on account of the Gospel…this is a man who is quite prepared to die so that those under his care might have true life. As David gladly fought lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:34-36) to protect the sheep in his charge, so too, Paul gladly fights the forces of the enemy, the devil, to protect his charge, even if it means laying down his own life.

While, as pastors in the western world, we are rarely (if ever) confronted with a situation where we might have to put our lives on the line to preserve a member of our flock, we are often called upon to make other sacrifices for the wellbeing and care of the sheep that God has placed in our care. Yet, how often the “professional clergy” fail to do this. How often, pastors sacrifice the wellbeing of their congregation to advance their own ends or their own reputation in the community or world. How often do we see pastors using a church as a means to an end (whether bouncing from church to church in hopes of bigger churches with bigger salaries or by manipulating the sympathies of the people in the congregation to gain gifts or other benefits).

Beloved, those who seek to use their congregation as a platform to serve their own ends are not serving as pastors. Pastors who are not willing to be poured out even as a drink offering for the strengthening of the faith of the congregation do not have the heart of Paul. As I was told many years ago by another pastor and as I have told many times to others, the pastorate is not a job; it is a lifestyle. We do not punch a clock at the end of the day; we are not given the luxury of not coming in because it is our “day off,” and we are by no means ever amongst those who can leave their job “at work.” We live our calling day in and day out and if we are unwilling to do so, we are unfit for the call.

Does that mean that pastors should resign their pastorate because they have lived poorly in this way? There are many who should. What it means is that, in understanding this great truth, we should repent. And all of us have room to repent daily for none of us fully lives up to the model set before us by Paul…and if not Paul, how far we are from the model Christ set before us. And, if you are not called to be a pastor, but the pastor that God has placed over you is not being faithful in this, do not set out with pitchforks and torches, but approach him in love and grace and encourage him in love to fulfill his calling. Sometimes, in the warp and woof of life, it is easy to be distracted from one’s first love by the busyness that can so consume our days. We all fall woefully short; praise God that there is forgiveness found in Christ.

Fulfill my Joy

“If therefore there is consolation in Christ, if there is encouragement of love, if there is fellowship of the Spirit, if there is affection and compassion, then fulfill my joy in order that you might be disposed to these things: having this love, being united, and being of one mind.”

(Philippians 2:1-2)

Indeed, if there is any desire that pastors have for their flock this would summarize it. One might add: “attentiveness to the Scriptures,” yet I would suggest that the only way the above can happen in a body of Christians is if the body is attentive to the Word of God. How often churches go astray because they don’t start at the right spot…sitting under the Word.

Some translations render the phrase “fellowship of the Spirit” as “spiritual fellowship,” which is a legitimate translation as the word “Spirit” does not have a definite article. At the same time, given the language of consolation in Christ, the parallelism seems to imply also that the fellowship will be in the Spirit, hence the choice to capitalize the term, seeing it as a reference to the Third member of the Trinity and not to the spirituality of believers.

This notion of unity becomes foundational to what Paul will speak of next…wisdom for all of us in Christ’s church. If we cannot get this notion into our beings, we will fall into fighting and bickering. And where there is fighting and bickering, almost always this spirit of unity is lacking. I have said more times than I care to count that these first 11 verses of Philippians 2 are the most significant verses that guide our Christian living…they send a simple message but contain profound truths. Yet, all in Paul’s timing as he unfolds the words of this letter.

A Military Model

“I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always and every prayer of mine for all of you, making prayer with gladness because of your fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now.”

(Philippians 1:3-5)

In the military, there is something that they refer to as a “Tooth-to-Tail Ratio (T3R).” This is a measurement of the ratio between combat troops who are fighting on the front lines and the support personnel. While this ratio has varied between different wars and at different points in history, the idea that if someone is going to be on the front lines that they need people who can support them, is a practical one that dates even back to Roman times.

As Christians in the west, we often struggle to think of the church according to military terms. Things seem to be at peace and we have relative freedom to worship in the way we wish. At the same time, our real enemy is not flesh and blood. Our enemy is found in the spiritual forces of evil that are at work in this world and if we are going to tell ourselves that such forces are not at work in the west, we are deceiving ourselves and hiding our heads from reality. Indeed, those forces may be more visible in the oppression that Christians face elsewhere, but Satan is indeed at work in our lives, tempting us with sin and placing stumbling blocks in our midst while at the same time, twisting and warping the culture in such a way that people around us celebrate death and Satan rather than celebrating life and God. Whether we like it or not, the church is a church at war.

And since we are at war, it is useful to remember once again that soldiers on the front lines need teams to support them. How then does this apply? First of all, in many cases our missionaries are on the front lines…and not just our missionaries on other continents, but local missionaries in our communities that focus on reaching the poor, addicts, or perhaps a hard-to-reach group of people. Yet, let’s not stop there. The primary task of church leadership is to equip the saints for the work of ministry. That means the saints (all the saints) are given a job to do. Those who are still at work or in the community are again on the front lines in a sense and the job of the church leadership is to make sure that they have the tools they need to lead Bible Studies or evangelize co-workers, family members, and people in the community. Many of our older members may not feel that they are engaged on the front lines any longer (though often a nursing home is a great field for evangelism!), but here they are given the wonderfully blessed task of committing time to prayer for specific believers and teams of people who are on the front lines as it were — not to mention for the wisdom and equipping work of the church leadership. Our children, who are being prepared for the front lines can also be taught to pray for those in the church as well. Done well, in a multi-generational church, this creates a huge pool of “support personnel” for those on the front lines.

As Paul is reflecting on the Philippians, he recognizes how significant their support has been to his ministry and that recognition causes him to celebrate and to thank God for the gift of those who have assisted him in ministry through their financial gifts, through their presence, and through their prayers. That said, I wonder how often, when we face trials on the front lines of spiritual battle, we recognize that we have a large group behind us, strengthening and supporting us with their prayers and sometimes even, with their resources. As a pastor, I am truly grateful not only for the commitment of my people to supporting my family so that I can focus my attention on equipping the body for ministry as a full-time vocation. Having been bi-vocational before and having many pastor-friends who are bi-vocational, this is a privilege I do not take for granted. In addition, I am thankful that the leadership of my congregation also recognizes that while my ministry begins on the hill here in New Sewickley Township, PA, it does not end on the hill here, but through technology, can extend to other places in the world through blogs, books, and other forms of communication. And indeed, I make my prayers with gladness for the support personnel that stand behind me in prayer and provision. Let us all not think of ourselves as lone-believers on the battlefield, but as members of a larger body — a network of believers brought together as a church to do a task: make disciples and tear down the powers of Satan in our world. We are a people at war, let us not forget that.